By Yvonne Ridley
17 January, 2011
He might still be living in the lap of luxury, but make no mistake Tunisia's former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family are prisoners.
Like birds in a guilded cage, they are languishing in a palace in one of the most exclusive districts of Jeddah but the truth is Ben Ali and his equally odious and corrupt family have nowhere else to hide.
It should signal a warning to all the other despots and dictators in the region – Egypt in particular – that no matter how close you think you are to the West, in times of trouble they will drop you faster than a burning coal.
As one of the cruelest oppressors on the planet scrambled to board a plane to escape what some may consider a well deserved lynching, the truth is he had no idea where he was going.
So fast was his demise.
We were told he was heading for Malta, then France and Dubai and half a dozen other countries but the truth is no one wanted the 74-year-old.
A desperate man, he finally found a bolthole in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Friday, arriving around midnight after close ally President Nicholas Sarkozy rejected a request for his plane to land on french soil.
Meanwhile frantic calls to the White House hotline and to Obama rang unanswered.
Once again America has proved itself to be a fickle friend just as the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi discovered when he went in to exile after his repressive regime in Iran was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The former Shah spent his exile in Egypt, totally isolated and shunned by the very same leaders in the West who had once supported him.
The Saudi government refuses to say how long he will be their guest but I like to think the many soldiers posted outside the palace's half dozen or so gates are not there for his protection but there to ensure he remains within the high sided walls.
Quite how this secular leader will settle in the land of the Two Holy Mosques is beyond me. Ben Ali despised Islam to such an extent he made sure his brutal enforcers abused and punished those God-fearing Tunisians who wore hijabs and grew beards.
For instance, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Interior and the Secretary-General of Tunisia's ruling political party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, stated several years ago that they were so concerned about rise in the use of the hijab by women and girls and beards and the qamis (knee-level shirts) by men, that they called for a strict implementation of decree 108 of 1985 of the Ministry of Education banning the hijab at educational institutions and when working in government.
Police ordered women to remove their head scarfs before entering schools, universities or work places and others were made to remove them in the street. Amnesty International reported at the time that some women were being arrested and taken to police stations where they were forced to sign written commitment to stop wearing the hijab.
Perhaps someone should remind the Saudis about that and have him charged under Shari'a law just for starters.
Ben Ali's hatred and fear of Islam can also be witnessed in Egypt where Hosni Mubarak rules with an iron fist. The prisons and dungeons of Egypt are jammed full of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissenting voices and political opponents who are rounded up everytime an election is in the offing.
Mubarak's betrayal of the Palestinian people and his irrational fear of Hamas speaks volumes also about his secular outlook and lifestyle which is at odds with Islam.
I was asked to leave Cairo in December 2009 by his Foreign Ministry after writing an article in which I said Mubarak had turned Egypt into America's rent boy in the Middle East because of the huge sums of money he willingly took from the US in return for oppressing the people of Gaza and supporting Israel.
But now he must be wondering if bending over a barrel for Uncle Sam is really a price worth paying.
After all, no one grovelled more to America than Ben Ali. In 2005 he was even ordered to extend the hand of friendship to the Zionist State, a country which had bombed his own when Yasser Arafat's PLO was headquartered in Tunis in 1986.
Did he object? No, in fact Ben Ali went one step further and invited the war criminal Ariel Sharon to visit Tunisia. Well, where has all that craven behaviour got him?
Just like the previous Tunisian tyrant, he happily kissed the rump of Zionists while belly-dancing in front of Western leaders who claimed to be among his closest allies.
Well, just where are his friends now?
He's friendless, homeless and humiliated.
British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the European President of the International Muslim Womens Union. She travelled extensively through Tunisia in February 2009 with the Viva Palestina convoy.